Fall 2014 – Briefly Noted

Aid for Assyrians. A monk's secret to schooling. Anonymous animal lovers. Rescuing an orchestra.

Mutual Aid for Christians in Iraq

In June, the Islamic State overtook Mosul—the second largest city in Iraq and home to many ethnic and religious minorities, including hundreds of thousands of Assyrian Christians. Mosul is now governed under sharia law. All Christian institutions have been destroyed or taken over. About 200,000 Assyrians have fled their homes. 

Amidst this crisis, a small mutual-aid group is offering lifesaving help. The Assyrian Aid Society was established in Iraq in 1991, and simultaneously in America, where at least 350,000 Assyrian immigrants are prospering, concentrated in Detroit, Chicago, and northern California. The society has long operated 61 schools in northern Iraq where children learn the rich history of Assyrian Catholics (stretching back to the earliest years of Christianity), and a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.


Relief supplies sent to Iraq by the Assyrian Aid Society. (AAS)

In the current crisis, the AAS has converted its rural schools into refugee camps where thousands of families have been sheltered and kept alive. The society’s work in Iraq has been fueled by $20,000 a week wired from a U.S. bank account to a Lebanese bank, where AAS members withdraw the funds and buy provisions from Turkish sources. Someone takes a photo or video to show proof of purchase and receipt, and then supplies are distributed throughout the region, concentrating in areas not yet accessible to international agencies.

AAS runs its operations at very little cost. One full-time staff member serves as an office manager, while its 17 board members and dozens of volunteers donate their time. Long supported by individual contributions from the Assyrian diaspora, AAS has also recently begun receiving donations from U.S. churches wishing to help these endangered representatives of one of the original branches of the Christian faith.   —Ashley May


Personal Giving

Following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Zoo Miami was in desperate straits. The sprawling tropical park had been ravaged by the cyclone, with many animals displaced and some habitats totally destroyed. Amid efforts to save the zoo, communications director Ron Magill was approached by an unassuming older gentleman who handed him an envelope, requesting that his donation remain anonymous, then disappeared. Expecting $25 or so, Magill was stunned to discover a check for $90,000. A year later, the gentleman sent another $100,000. He continued his giving for years, eventually donating $800,000 to the zoo during his lifetime.

The mystery donor’s name was Albert Sami, a retired businessman who moved to Miami with his wife, Winifred, to open a tool store. Growing up penniless in New York in the 1930s, Albert worked as an ice delivery man to support his mother and sister. He felt sorry for the horses that pulled the carriages, seeing them endure extreme heat and cold and even collapse with exhaustion. He vowed then that he would do something in his life to protect animals.


Albert and Winifred Sami. (The Sami Estate)

An early investor in the media company Wometco, Albert had struck stock-market gold, but he and Winifred saved carefully and spent almost no money on themselves. When Magill first wrote to thank them, he was invited to the Samis’ home, and grew close to the couple over time. As he describes in a moving tribute in the Miami Herald, “As the years went on, [they] became part of my family. Their wisdom and guidance were illuminating. I could not get over how simply they lived without any sign of extravagance. No computer, no cable or satellite television, not even a garbage disposal. They had one television, an old Zenith tube set with no remote. There were drawers in the garage filled with countless old screws, washers, and what looked like broken parts from machines long gone. Still a saver, after all these years. Everything could be reused.”

The Samis’ house was filled with notepads and knickknacks that arrived as thank-you gifts from the many charities they supported. Their biggest beneficiary became the zoo, because they were confident Magill would disburse the funds responsibly. Albert “didn’t trust governments or boards to dole out money properly. He said that it wasn’t organizations that inspired him to give, but rather people within them.”

In 2007, Albert passed on, and Winifred followed not long after: Both of them died in Magill’s arms. They left their $2.3 million estate to the zoo, enabling major reconstructions, an endowment, and new programming. The seal of anonymity broken at last, Miami residents are finally hearing the story of “two of the dearest” philanthropists in south Florida.   —Ashley Edokpayi


College Endowment Disparities

A recent study by the Sutton Trust reveals that university endowments in the U.K. badly lag U.S. counterparts, and that the fundraising gap is widening. Harvard’s endowment alone is more than the total of all U.K. universities combined. Only Oxford and Cambridge have endowments over £1 billion, while the U.S. has 42 such institutions.

From 2004 to 2011 the British government ran a matching grant program to encourage voluntary giving to university endowments, with the particular hope of encouraging giving beyond Oxford and Cambridge. During that time, British universities raised £580 million and received £143 million in matching funds, but while the Oxford and Cambridge endowments accounted for 70 percent of all university totals in the U.K. in 2002, by 2012 that had grown to 79 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of U.S. endowments held by its two wealthiest universities, Harvard and Yale, held steady at around 13 percent. Despite the economic downturn, Sutton estimates that the average U.S. university endowment has increased by 24 percent over the last decade.   —Ashley May


Monks in the Inner City

Poverty. Unemployment. Billions of dollars spent on schooling with dismal results. The seventh highest murder rate in the United States. Newark, New Jersey, is afflicted. Yet amidst all this there is an oasis of school success. While most of the city’s students never even finish high school, St. Benedict’s Prep, a 146-year-old school serving 550 low-income minority boys, boasts a nearly 100 percent college acceptance rate. And it’s run by monks.

Their secret? The monks say they recognized long ago that “inner-city kids need special elements not found in traditional schools.” And many of these elements are spelled out in a 1,500-year old monastic manual, the Rule of St. Benedict, that the sixth-century Italian monk codifed to guide his monastic order. In the new documentary The Rule: Want Inner City Schools to Finally Succeed?, which premiered on PBS in September, husband and wife filmmakers Jerome and Marylou Bongiorno give us an inside look.


Monks at St. Benedict’s Prep. (Bongiorno Productions Inc.)

Many of the students come from broken families and have significant emotional issues. “It’s ludicrous for you to continue to talk about algebra or English when a kid’s got a broken heart,” says one monk. So these needs are addressed. One of St. Benedict’s Prep’s most potent intervention tools is Leahy House, where boys can stay to stabilize their living environment, silence outside noise, and focus on their internal needs. Another program for personal development: Freshmen embark on a five-day, 58-mile Appalachian Trail hike, where they learn camping skills, living in community, persistence, and the maturity required to be a man.

There are no metal detectors at St. Benedict’s, no school bells, no locks on the lockers. Assemblies, homeroom, and other aspects of the school day are student-led. In a city culture where the monks say no connection between hard work and success is present, these boys are learning otherwise. As self-proclaimed “monk in the ’hood” Brother Patrick Winbush says, “when young men come to St. Benedict’s Prep, they’re not just coming to any old school, they are coming to a monastery. And they learn the Benedictine values—because they need it.”


Q & A with a Mad Woman 

Ave Maria University recently unveiled its plans for its first performing arts theater, a project whose success is brightened by the fact that Myra Daniels is chairing its fundraising. From her first business venture as a girl selling party favors, Daniels went on to build a pioneering advertising firm and then become president of the legendary Draper Daniels Inc. (model for the TV show “Mad Men”). The ingenuity and entrepreneurship that Daniels applied to advertising have made her a success in philanthropy as well. She was the founder and longtime CEO of the arts center that is home to the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra. Now considered one of the most financially stable orchestras in the U.S., the philharmonic was struggling when Daniels took charge of a fund drive that raised $100,000 in five days. A few years later her charge occupied a new hall and was debt free. On behalf of  Philanthropy, Peter Atkinson spoke recently with Myra Daniels about ads, giving, faith, and her current projects.


Advertiser extraordinaire turned philanthropic organizer Myra Daniels. (Vanessa Rogers Photography)

Q:  How did your advertising experience help your philanthropic work?

A:  In advertising, we were always selling an idea, a concept, a product. And, in a funny way, philanthropy is like that, too. You are creating an excitement about a worthy cause or a community need. You are selling the idea that we can all work together to make this community, and this world, a better place. That’s the best kind of salesmanship, and the best type
of product.

That’s the principle we used to sell our community on building the Philharmonic Center for the Arts and the Naples Museum of Art. At first I just took a telephone book—back in the days when people still used telephone books—and put a dot beside every nth name and started making calls.

On one of my first calls, I said, “Hello, I’m Myra Daniels. I have an idea that I think will change the lives of people in this community, and I’d like to talk about it.” And the woman on the other end said, “Okay, I guess so.” At the end she said, “Well that’s very interesting. I can give you 25.” I didn’t know it at the time, but it was not $25 she was offering. It turned out to be $25,000!  And we went from there.

This woman was Frances Pew Hayes, who had a family foundation. And she later said to me, “I have a couple of ‘mil’ that hasn’t been spent this year, and I’ll give you that.” And she meant millions! She became sold on the idea, and so did the rest of the community.

Q:  Were many of the donations that size?

A:  They were all sizes. We accepted donations from people of all ages and all backgrounds. That was the wonderful thing about it. There was one child who met me in the grocery store one day who recognized my face from our television ads. He said, “You’re the woman on TV.” And I said, “Maybe.” He said, “You were selling bricks for $100. I’d like to buy one, but I don’t have that much money.” I said, “Well how much do you have?” It turns out he had $1.29. I said, “Well, I’ll take a dollar and let you keep the change. And you’ll be a good example to your friends.” I did put a paver with his name on it in front of the Philharmonic Center. It was teaching him something.

Q:  How did you transition from advertising to philanthropic work?

A:  I’ve always been involved in giving, from the time I was five years old. I got an allowance back then, and my grandmother said, “I’m going to give you 50 cents. How are you going to share it?” And I said, “I don’t have to; it’s mine!” And she said, “Give it back, then. You think about how you can share it.” So I thought about that and the next day I said to myself, “Well, okay, I’ll give a dime away.” Then I thought, “There are two kids in class who look like they never have any money, so I’ll give two dimes away.” So I got to school early and I put the money in little envelopes and I wrote on the front, “To a friend, from a friend.”

And then I sat there, and pretended I was working at my desk. And this little girl came in, and she opened her desk to get her pen and saw this envelope. She opened it, and there was a dime. She turned to me and said, “Did you see someone come in here?” And I wasn’t lying—I didn’t see someone. So I said, “No.”

I got so much joy out of it that the next time I got my 50 cents, I gave three dimes away. And then I gave four. And my grandmother was very pleased. Afterward I remembered I didn’t know how to spell “friend.” I’d spelled: “To a fiend, from a fiend!” I still think philanthropy is best when nobody knows what you do.

Q:  You said at Ave Maria University’s scholarship dinner that building the university’s new theater is your most important project. Why?

A:  Because the need is great and the students are compelling. I think it will change the students’ lives there. I know it will. And it will benefit the whole community, as well. This is my creed, really: See a need. Do your research. Know that the need is clear. Feel comfortable about it. And do a lot of praying.

There’s such talent at Ave Maria! Tom Monaghan, the founder, had approached me earlier to help, maybe five or six years ago, but Ave Maria wasn’t quite ready then. It had too many other needs. Now it’s ready, and we have a great start. It will make a big difference and put the college on the map for its arts programs.

Q:  You’re also involved with building the Mother Teresa Museum at the university. Does the model of Mother Teresa influence you in philanthropy?

A:  Tremendously.  She’s a real hero to me. Mother Teresa was also a good saleswoman. What she got from people was fantastic. But she gave the way we should give, too—without wanting anything for it—and that was her secret. I think she was the greatest humanitarian among women during my lifetime. And I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone quite as selfless.

Q: Faith has influenced your philanthropy.

A: I’ll give you my secrets. I believe that I have been guided and guarded and governed. I believe that fervently. And I’m not ashamed to ask for that guidance. People used to say I talked to myself when I was driving. Well, I was doing my thing. I used to say, every day, “Guide me, guard me, govern me, God.” And He or She did. I’ve never found anything that I couldn’t solve if I took in that intangible that we think we can’t understand. The great mystery, the great power—it’s hard to explain to someone, but it’s there.

Q: You retired from advertising to work on the Philharmonic Center, Ave Maria University, and the Salvation Army.

A: I couldn’t do the work I’m doing in philanthropy if I didn’t have the experience I had in advertising. But I didn’t ever really think of it as retiring. In fact, I don’t believe in retiring! I think whenever you close one door you should open another. Or, to use a different analogy, each step in your life and your career should be a stepping stone to the next—not a stopping point.

Whenever I go into anything, I really have to believe in it. And if I believe in it, it never dawns on me that I won’t have all the help I need to get there. That may sound a little screwy to you, but I ran a big business in Chicago on that theory—and I’ve lived my life that way.

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